Liberty, Stephen Coonts

St. Martin’s, 2003 (2004 reprint), 530 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-312-98970-9

The way I wrote about Stephen Coonts’ last few novels, no one would have been surprised had I simply stopped reading his stuff. After the insanity of Saucer, the boredom of America or the misfires in Cuba and Hong Kong, I should have relegated Coonts to the dustbin of failed techno-thriller writers. But stuff happens, used book sales can reveal cheap surprises and books like Liberty can spontaneously appear on my bookshelves.

From the first few pages, it’s not a promising read. Coonts, comfy in his post-9/11 patriotism, write without irony in his acknowledgements about America being the “civilization and economy that feeds, clothes and houses the six billion people marooned on this small planet.” No one ever accused Americans of thinking too small, but this seems a bit much even by the inflated standards of American self-righteousness. Oh well; onward.

At first, even the plot itself doesn’t seem particularly appealing. Like most techno-thriller writers, Coonts has chosen to write his own version of “the bomb at home” plot: Terrorists buy nuclear warheads from renegade ex-Soviet sources and smuggle them into the US: it’s up to series protagonist Jake Grafton to discover and disarm them. Do I even have to reveal the ethnicity of the terrorists?

But true thriller magic soon emerges from this inauspicious start. Unlike most of Coonts’ previous novel, this one starts to click: If you can do like Coonts and ignore most of his previous book’s geopolitical developments (revolution in post-Castro Cuba, Chinese civil war over Hong Kong, etc.), Liberty soon acquires a steady forward rhythm, even finding appropriate dramatic justification for its recurring characters. As Grafton is tasked with the impossible task of finding the bombs, the story keeps on acquiring further complications.

By far my favourite twist occurs when the US government starts sweeping East coast cities for nuclear bombs… only to find out that there are already several ones ticking away. Preposterous and unbelievable, sure, but also indicative of the way Coonts isn’t going to play it completely safe in this novel. Some scenes work splendidly while others fall flat (such as Grafton/Coonts’ on-the-nose depiction of an all-American neighbourhood complete with disposable bagels), but Liberty is, for the first time in a while, the first Coonts novel where we’re having fun. Despite the flag-waving, despite the heady-handed stereotypes, despite the scattered plotting, this novel brings it back together for a while.

It goes without saying that in fine acknowledgement of Chekhov’s Rule, the terrorists’ four bombs are all in play and all serve to juice up the book’s second half. Even the nuke-purchasing terrorists can’t trust each other when one of the bombs is stolen by yet another terrorist group intent on using it to serve their own vengeance. Oh, yes, Liberty is pleasantly twisted, and this kind of low-grade insanity is what keeps readers going. (But one can’t have everything: The third bomb is found and deactivated by pure dumb luck, which is a kind of a twist by itself, I suppose.) The big overlong Hollywood-finale is almost ridiculous in how many plot drivers it cranks up, but as long as everything ends spectacularly, who’s to complain?

Even the characters all get good scenes: Grafton and Tarkington do well by themselves, of course, but even the smaller and newer characters get their turn in the spotlight. New character Anna Modin and Janos Ilin make a great first impression, America‘s Zelda Hudson is turned into a halfway sympathetic character, while master thief Tommy Cardinelli is stuck into an exceptionally thrilling situation midway through the book.

In short, I’m not only surprised by Liberty itself: I’m impressed at how Coonts managed to rescue a good book from the jaws of a failing career. Maybe this is a fluke in an otherwise nose-diving career (certainly, the “Stephen Coonts’ Deep Black” series isn’t a good sign), maybe this is the turning point leading to better novels now that Admiral Gafton has reached the end of his military career. Somehow, I doubt that Jake is ready for the orchard yet. Let’s have a look at Coonts’ next book, shall we?

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